Tuesday, January 3, 2012
Ensuring Access to Safe Drinking Water for All by Marcia Henry
What’s most important to sustaining human life? Arguably it’s water. In fact, the United Nations recognized the human right “to safe and clean drinking water” through a resolution in 2010.
California law recognizes the right, too—sort of. The state requires water systems to provide a “reliable and adequate supply of pure, wholesome, potable, and healthy water,” but some residents of rural areas in the San Joaquin Valley, where high poverty rates abound, must pay up to 20 percent of their income for drinkable water. In the unincorporated town of Lanare, for example, residents pay $54 per month for tap water that is contaminated with nitrates (which have been linked to cancer and blue-baby syndrome), arsenic, and other toxic substances, forcing them—at least those who can pay—to spend an additional $35 per month for bottled water. In contrast, the residents of nearby Riverdale, a larger town, will build a new $5.4 million arsenic water treatment plant after passing a bond issue and obtaining a $500,000 grant from the state.
The struggle for safe water isn’t limited to California. Although the federal Safe Water Drinking Act requires most water providers to meet drinking water standards, funding realities dictate that access to safe drinking water too often depends on a community’s wealth . Most states have taken over enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act but, unlike under the Clean Water Act, which deals primarily with discharge of pollutants into surface water, states don’t get much federal funding to help meet drinking water standards. This lack of funding at every level complicates enforcement efforts.
This reality may be shifting in California, where California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), using a combination of litigation and legislative advocacy, has changed the legal landscape when it comes to low-income residents’ access to safe water.
California implements the federal Safe Drinking Water Act through its Health & Safety Code, which requires the Department of Public Health to develop a Safe Drinking Water Plan every five years. In recognition of gaps in the knowledge and enforcement capacity of the state’s myriad small water systems, the plan focuses on analyzing the water quality and service of water systems with fewer than 10,000 connections. But it’s been nearly 20 years since the Department obeyed the statutory mandate and submitted a plan—decades during which many rural Californians have been drinking water laced with arsenic.